Washington — It was hailed as a public relations coup for the Soviet Union: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev surprised everyone when he took off 45 minutes from his lunch break during the first day at Geneva to field questions from a delegation of peace group leaders headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. It was also a small and unexpected triumph for an international peace movement that had been groping for a way to get back to stage center for the ongoing drama of strategic geopolitics. With the handshakes of Geneva fading into history, a reinvigorated peace movement has zeroed in on its next goal: a moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons by both the US and the Soviet Union.
``It's clear that the peace movement is back on the map,'' says David Cortwright, executive director of SANE, a Washington, D.C.-based antinuclear organization. ``The test ban is now the No. 1 issue. It's simple, easily achievable, doesn't require elaborate negotiation, and it's easy to verify.''
It may also constitute the peace movement's best shot at regaining momentum on arms control, a momentum many activists feel has been lost to the new popularity of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or ``star wars.''
``The President has seized the moral high ground with star wars by saying, in essence, `Let's make nuclear weapons obsolete,' '' says Eric Fersh, disarmament campaign director for Greenpeace. ``The freeze issue was important because it put arms control on the agenda. Now our task is to get out of the position we're in of reacting to things. Our task for the coming years is to set the arms control agenda itself.''
Many arms control organizations have advocated a test ban for years. At the end of July, Mr. Gorbachev gave the notion new life when he announced that his country would halt underground testing of nuclear weapons and invited the United States to do the same. The administration refused, noting that the Soviets made their offer only after completing all their tests planned for this year anyway.
With the Soviet testing halt set to expire Jan. 1, peace groups have pledged to make a mutual test ban by the two countries a major issue in the coming months. ``We're going to make this a big issue, it will be all over the place,'' pledges Jane Wales, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
This immediate drive for a test ban may even take precedence over the peace movement's campaign against SDI. Polls have recorded an upswing in support for SDI despite the fact that arms control organizations and a substantial number of scientists have joined peace groups in a vigorous attempt to mobilize opposition to the plan. In addition, Mr. Reagan is seen to have demonstrated at Geneva that he is unlikely to budge from his position of support for SDI anytime soon.
At the same time, however, peace activists insist that in today's budgetary climate, SDI will become increasingly vulnerable to cutbacks. During next year's election season, antinuclear organizers say they plan to make positions on SDI and the test ban major local issues.
Even armed with the test-ban issue, the international peace movement has far to go before it regains the sort of momentum it once enjoyed. Indeed, the summit itself, as well as future ones planned for 1986 and '87, may prove to be a double-edged sword for organizations wielding them in pursuit of their goals. The meeting with Gorbachev and, later, with officials from the US delegation certainly did elevate the status of the groups there, and peace organizers have been vocal in applauding the improved
atmosphere in superpower relations that resulted. But they also worry that post-summit relief could lessen the urgency many people have felt for immediate steps toward arms control. The resulting public apathy, movement strategists say, could present the largest immediate obstacle to their plans.